When street artist Shepard Fairey was arrested on two outstanding warrants for property defacement last month — incidentally, on the way to the first museum exhibition of his career, at Boston’s Institute for Contemporary Art — a representative of the Boston Police likened his work to graffiti.
But Fairey, who rose to prominence when his Obama Hope poster was featured in last year’s presidential race, has since pleaded not guilty to the charges, describing his work as “graphic art with social and political messages.”
The arrest, Fairey’s 15th, has provided new fodder for the long-standing debate about what is art and what is property defacement. Should Fairey be punished, or should he be celebrated?
BU Today asked Hugh O’Donnell, a College of Fine Arts professor of painting, who teaches CFA’s Site-Specific Art course, to weigh in on the discussion.
BU Today: When does graffiti become art?
O’Donnell: Graffiti is literally the writing on the wall — the voice of those who cannot find any other way to publish their thoughts anonymously. The term is used to describe a public visual expression that has not been sanctioned by a commissioning authority, something that is placed in public view, unsolicited and without permission. Today, however, it’s no longer anonymous, but instead an esoteric form of self-publicity that seeks the widest audience possible.
Graffiti can be art. Art is what we call something when it carries significant human symbolic expression. It’s all a question of degree, and there is good art, great art, and bad art.
Is graffiti art any more or less evocative than other forms?
The freedom of graffiti, its ability to be anywhere and everywhere, and the sometimes daredevil places it is made give it a romantic edge and powerful exposure. Today, communications media have exploded and the whole issue of distribution of intellectual property has become as big for art as it is for scientific or medical research. Distribution of music has become revolutionized, but visual art lags behind in getting free of the gallery and museum, which are the traditional ways of controlling and providing access to the public.
But why should the hype be reserved for the selected few, with dealers, curators, and critics ruling the distribution of ideas? The graffiti movement is utilizing the public to spread its ideas. It’s the survival of the fittest — and there are downsides, because art now has to survive in the same arena as ad campaigns, and sometimes it simply suffers from the speed at which it is getting done as well as from the repetitive action of branding a recognizable image over and over again. However, Andy Warhol legitimized this as art back in the 1960s. In many minds, the idea of success even for art is that it communicates effectively even when it is little more than simplistic branding.
When the police arrest a street artist like Fairey, is it censorship? Does media attention help the message reach a broader audience?
Shepard Fairey probably embraces the fact that he gets arrested because it gives him the kind of prime-time exposure that he craves. If the police wanted to curb the glamour of his notoriety, they should arrest him only when he is actually in the act of making graffiti. The ICA exhibition is not graffiti.
Why do street artists like Fairey, or Banksy, in England, have huge, devoted followings?
When you are known to a lot of people, you are a celebrity, and our culture worships celebrities. When Banksy had his work collected by Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, it made him a world-class phenomenon. He was able to make his photographic documentary edition of work the number-one book in England.
Street artists are often making social commentary — does getting arrested sometimes strengthen their point?
It strengthens their authority rather than their points. Often the point is rather glib and only noticeable because of notoriety. Being notorious is, I would say, an essential ambition for the graffiti writer.
What would you propose as a legal solution to this problem?
If someone put graffiti on my wall and it was bad art, I would want them arrested and made to restore the wall. More sites that are legal should be encouraged, with a percent for art made available by the owner of the space in the same way that new buildings in some states give a percent for art as a mandatory requirement. The owner needs to be a collaborator. With this plan, there would be no end of space to choose from.
What advice would you offer a student thinking about pursuing street art as a career?
I’d ask them to check out the Graffiti Research Lab for clues about ways to make public statements that do minimal damage to public property.
Edward A. Brown can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.